the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, European colonial powers competed to seize the richest regions of the African continent. In 1884, convinced that it would be better to formalize the colonization of Africa than to have constant quarrels over territories, the Chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck, organized a conference in Berlin attended by 14 European countries. The goal was simple: to divide the African continent. As a result of the conference, Germany “received” Tanzania, Togo, Cameroon, and Namibia.
Life in a 19th-century African Colony
“The first settlers who came here [to Namibia] came in the hope that they would make easy money. But it wasn’t that kind of a colony. It was not like Togo or Cameroon, those very fertile areas,”historian Casper Erichsen
At that time, most of Herero’s natives in Namibia were raising cattle. They measured their wealth in the number of animals they owned. As more and more Germans arrived in this area, the natives began to see their wealth disappear overnight. Thus, the first tensions between Africans and Europeans began to appear.
The Germans wanted to run the colony, and not just on paper. They wanted to take over the administration with the goal in mind of making the colony a state for the German colonists. By creating such a state, conflicts raised with the Africans who ruled the land and the cattle. In other colonies, it was seen that these anti-colonial struggles began earlier, but because this was such a young colony, the struggle had not yet taken shape, therefore the problems had not yet been resolved.
But who was really in charge of this colony?
Between 1903 and 1908, the army of Kaiser Wilhelm II brutally suppressed the rebellion of the Herero natives, killing over 65,000 men in just four years. This is the first recognized genocide of the twentieth century, and many say it served as a model for what Hitler would do a few decades later.
On January 12, 1904, Herero leader Samuel Maharero ordered the attack on infrastructure facilities, farms, railway stations, and nearby villages such as Okahandia. Unfortunately, both women and children fell victim to the beginning of a revolt that would become a full-fledged war. Historian Erichsen says the rebellion against the Germans was born out of all the resentment that had gathered in recent years. Therefore, it spread very quickly among the Herero population.
Farmworkers began to take up arms and fight German farmers, and some were killed. The Germans were completely taken by surprise due to the revolt of the natives. That is why, in the first phase, the natives defeated the Europeans, but later Berlin sent General Lothar von Trotha to quell the revolt.
On August 11, 1904, he began his attack. When Herero’s counterattack followed, the Germans practically harvested them with machine guns. Because the eastern flank was weakened, the Herero people managed to pierce it and this led to a desperate, unplanned escape into the Kalahari desert. Thousands of people died of thirst and famine in this wilderness escape.
After the revolt was suppressed, the surviving natives were forbidden to have land or cattle. They were also sent to concentration camps to work for settlers. The Germans used the prisoners to build streets, railways, and ports. Thousands of people have died in these camps due to exhaustion, hunger, and disease.
It is estimated that about 25,000–35,000 indigenous people died in concentration camps in the three years they operated. There is a misunderstanding, in the sense that many believe that the genocide took place when von Trotha attacked the Herero population. In my opinion, the real genocide was what followed in the next three years.
Many descendants of the survivors say that the violence of the Germans and the years of colonial rule still influence their lives. Many can be correlated with the war of that time.
In 2001, the Herero tribe launched a lawsuit against Germany in America, becoming the first ethnic group to seek redress for the atrocities committed a century ago.
“It was a genocide committed against our people and we believe it is our responsibility and our mission to demand compensation. We want them to admit that they committed genocide. After this recognition, we want them to apologize. And after the apology, we want to have a dialogue, then we can talk,”Ushua, a social worker and leader of the Herero Genocide Committee in Namibia.
In August 2004, Germany apologized for the genocide. However, they rejected the idea of financial compensation for the families of the victims but promised aid. Without too much doubt, the German colonial period and the genocide or extermination had a direct impact on the way the Herero people live today. Germany is only one of the many European nations that shackled, used, and slaughtered cultures from Africa.